Eldersburg: Meetings and Hearings Related to Development of 1503 Liberty Road

LIDL Grocery StoreSunday, April 9, 2017

Hi. Here are some notes related to Carroll County meetings and hearings that have bearing on the development of 22.6 acres along Liberty Road, between Georgetown Blvd. and Homeland Drive. The property includes 1503 Liberty Road, the prospective site of a new LIDL (“leedle”) that will be Eldersburg’s seventh full-size grocery store.

Proposed Site of New LIDL Grocery Store

The property we’re talking about is the large, mostly brown lot – that looks a bit like someone’s right foot?! – in the center of the Google Maps image above. There’s a Shoppers grocery store immediately to the left. The Safeway and Martin’s are just up a bit on Sykesville Road. The new Walmart Supercenter grocery store is down Liberty Road to the right and the Weis, a little past that. The new ALDI is opening on the other side of Liberty Road in the building where the Walmart used to be.

Last Wednesday’s meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission…

The relevant portion of this meeting had to do with a “text amendment,” a change to the language that defines zoning classification B-NR (Business – Neighborhood Retail) which is how the property is currently zoned. The amendment would raise the maximum store size on B-NR property tenfold from 10,000 SF to 100,000 SF.

The owner of the Liberty Road property had asked that the maximum be increased to 40,000 SF to accommodate the LIDL, but County staff decided to push the increase all the way to 100,000 SF. That’s enough for “big box” stores, including, for example, a Dick’s Sporting Goods (50,000 SF) or small Target (75,000 to 100,000 SF).

Remember, a text amendment affects all B-NR property, not just the one property on Liberty Road. According to facts introduced at the hearing, there are only 5 vacant B-NR properties in the County, plus another 15 which are developed and already include “non-conforming” stores larger than the current 10,000 SF limit. So 21 properties altogether.

The meeting, which was held at the County office building in Westminster at 6 PM, was poorly attended by fewer than 20 people, including 6 “suits” representing two opposing parties. Four of them were there to argue on behalf of the property owner who asked for the text amendment. The other two were there to argue the opposition on behalf of the Freedom Village shopping center that includes a Shoppers grocery store that will be directly across Georgetown Blvd. from the new LIDL.

The arguments by both sides were interesting, although a tad tedious, but at least one of the Commissions 7 members had a problem with the presentations by attorneys representing specific commercial interests. What the Commissioner thought should have been a general discussion of the text amendment was being argued by two competitors whose business interests were specific and of no particular interest to the Commission. While the Commission does consider applications to change the zoning on specific properties, the text amendment under consideration will affect an entire class of properties countywide.

The Commission made it clear that it was not the County’s role, in a free market economy, to tell a property owner precisely what it can or cannot put on a property – a grocery store, in this case– as long as the owner chooses from among the uses listed in the zoning code. It’s a point the County keeps making that works as a general rule, but not all the time.

What’s wrong with the County’s free market argument?

1. A market is only free if there’s competition.

Unfortunately, there is very little that is competitive about major real estate projects. Particularly in a community that is already well-developed, major real estate projects have little to do with free market economics. That’s because the cost of entry into the major real estate development market is so high that only a relatively few players, with the right properties and very substantial capital, can afford to participate. Valuable land that is worthy of expensive investments in its development is rare. It’s not a common commodity that you can purchase at some big box store or online at Amazon.

The more important the property, the greater its influence over the nature of commerce in the community it serves. In the absence of significant population growth, major new development that doesn’t bring new products, services or pricing to the local economy can only succeed by stealing customers and revenues from established commerce nearby. Is that really the behavior of a “free market” that the Commissioners were talking about? If the Commission believes so strongly in free market real estate development, why use zoning to restrict the number and location of properties that can be developed? Don’t those restrictions just make the real estate market even less competitive?

The less competitive a market, the more people depend upon their local governments to intervene on their behalf. The larger and more influential a property in its neighborhood economy, the more important it is that the Commission step up and consider the effects of the precise land use the developer planning.

2. What’s the point of having master plans if you don’t respect their objectives?

Both the County Master Plan and the Freedom Community Comprehensive Plan for Eldersburg are based, in part, on the principle that major property development should be “kind” – that development should make a significant, net positive contribution to the community in which it is located.

In addition to playing with zoning classifications, the County should be conducting or requiring economic impact studies for major real estate projects to make sure the objectives of master and comprehensive plans are met. But the County doesn’t do economic impact analysis. So how does anyone make sure a particular site plan for a new shopping center won’t actually have detrimental, negative direct and indirect (ripple) effects on existing commerce, jobs and family income? No question about it, with or without the benefit of economic impact analysis, enforcing master plan objectives is the business of the Planning and Zoning Commission. And that’s why the Commission should be consider the specifics of what the property owner has in mind.

Remember, the property owner has all sorts of profitable options, of which a new LIDL – the seventh full-size grocery store to open in Eldersburg – is only one. Asking the property owner to consider other development options is only a minor inconvenience for the greater good of the community.

In the end, the Commission decided to table further discussion of the text amendment for a month or two until the work of County staff on related changes to Master Plan zoning classifications is further along. So, no decision about the text amendment for now.

Upcoming meetings and hearings…

Speaking of Comprehensive Plans which will have significant implications for your community, Eldersburg residents may want to attend one or both of the events described in the screenshot below from the County website.

Upcoming Events Related to Freedom Community Comprehensive Plan

While public meetings can be time consuming and occasionally boring, to miss one is tantamount to leaving the future of the place where you and your family live up to other people who showed up. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s not, but do you really want to risk it? Who knows what those other people and your County’s planning authorities are thinking?

Be sure to check our countdown clock on the right side of our home screen for the time remaining before these meetings. And, before you leave our website, please take a moment to fill out our survey to tell us what you’d like to see at 1503 Liberty Road. Our survey is anonymous and results, when we’re done, will be published all over the place, including in the Carroll County Times and will be given to County Commissioner Doug Howard and other County officials.

Sorry, but the survey is no longer open.

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